LONDON: For a man reputed to be as shy as the reindeer roaming the Arctic Chukotka Province he governs, Roman Abramovich is certainly getting the hang of high pressure, high visibility football club ownership.
It is just over a month since the Russian bought his majority share holding in Chelsea, the trendy club in well-heeled west London. He has bought a new player a week – minimum.
The signing of Joe Cole from the east London club West Ham United on Tuesday, followed by the announcement on Wednesday that Manchester United has accepted ‘‘Chelski’s’’ price for Juan Sebastian Veron, keeps the acquisitions spinning over at more than a £1 million, or US$1.6 million, a day.
The spending on new manpower for Chelsea’s team has reached £58.6 million. That is just short of US$95 million, or an awful lot of rubles. Add the salaries these players command, and Abramovich has spent twice as much this summer of austerity as any other club in Europe. With the new season in England’s Premier League just over a week away, the fans of Chelsea can barely believe their transformation.
The club, it is said, was close to bankruptcy, it has a lot of real estate but an £80-million debt that Abramovich undertook to settle as well as agreeing to an inflated price for the shares.
The players are coming in two-by-two. There is a pair of young English fullbacks: Glen Johnson on the right, Wayne Bridge on the left. Now there are two creative, but mercurial midfield talents, Cole and Veron.
There is only one new winger, Damien Duff, but with the whole of August to go before the international transfer window closes, the target remains a goalscorer in the mould of Christian Vieri.
What is curious about Abramovich’s one-man spending spree is that he comes, so far as football is concerned, out of nowhere, and he collects disparate talents as if on a whim.
Curious, too, was his photo call and media conference in Anadyr, the capital of the remote Siberian Chukotka region, where he gives back a sprinkling of the US$5 billion he amassed from the earth of Mother Russia. Abramovich is one of the entrepreneurs, the so-called oligarchs, who have taken advantage of Russia’s rapid move from Communism to capitalism.
His acts of largess in London have not gone down well in Moscow, where the leader of the football federation spoke of him ‘‘spitting’’ in the eye of Russian football. Maybe that was why Abramovich chose to be hunted down by the British media pack in Anadyr, which apparently is a nine-hour flight, and nine time zones away from Moscow.
Come, he tacitly seems to say in their articles and photographs, see me in my jeans and my military camouflage top; see where I build homes and facilities for the forgotten Russians who have little. He says he is surprised by the Western media attention since he went to Chelsea, though he admits he knew football was like a religion to the English.
He tells journalists that, at 36, he decided to become a club owner after he watched Manchester United’s 4-3 victory over Real Madrid in the Champions League earlier this year. ‘‘Truly, a beautiful game,’’ he recalled.
His business advisers drew up a list of 10 English clubs, from which Abramovich decided Chelsea represented the best quality at the best price. He beguiled the media visiting his remote province with the tale of a 10-year-old boy who wrote to him suggesting three players. Uncle Roman has bought all three.
Of course, there has been a little help from those who know the market. Player agents, who live off their clients’ changing clubs for fees from which they divert large percentages, have been around Abramovich like bees round pollen.
He listens most earnestly to Pini Zahavi, a former Israeli sports reporter whose contacts within the European game stretch back two decades and include Sven-Goran Eriksson, the Swede who coaches England, and Alex Ferguson, the Scot who manages Manchester United.
These men all mine the market, and play fast and loose with public statements about whether they are going to buy, or sell, this or that player. Eriksson keeps issuing denials that his meeting at Abramovich’s London address indicates in any way the likelihood of him becoming the next coach at Chelsea.
And Ferguson? Things move apace in modern football, but last week as United toured the United States, their manager said Veron was ‘‘as far as he knew’’ happy at United.
The deal might have been cut above Ferguson’s head at Manchester United, but Veron is going for £15 million – only just over half what United paid Lazio two years ago. The cut in price, if not in player wages, reflects two things.
The market is scaling back because money is short, at least in the West, and that Veron failed to impose his marvellous but languid skills on the uptempo style of United.
Veron is an Argentine who needs to be the fulcrum of the whole team’s movement. He has vision. He can deliver passes to liberate strikers that few other players would ever dream up. But Veron did it best at Sampdoria, and then Lazio – and at both clubs the coach was a certain Swede, a friend of Abramovich’s, by the name of Eriksson.
Wheels are turning within wheels. In eastern Siberia, a benefactor who gives the people homes and facilities and pensions, strolls around with British reporters with cameramen from the BBC at his heels.
In England, the same man ignores all the signals of an overspent football boom, and tries to buy a place at the elite table for his new, true Blue, soccer love.
He says he doesn’t expect to win the Premier League or the Champions League at once – but he will spend until he achieves his goals. – IHT